Adventures in Ethics and Science

Dr. Free-Ride: I wanted to ask you guys a question. I think maybe I asked you this question (or something like it) some time ago, but you were a lot younger and, you know, you keep growing and changing and stuff. So the question is, when someone tells you something about science, how can you tell if that person knows what they’re talking about?

Younger offspring: No way.

Dr. Free-Ride: What? What do you mean, “no way”?


Younger offspring: I don’t know.

Dr. Free-Ride: You don’t know how to tell if someone knows what they’re talking about? Like, if a kindergartner told you something about science, how would you evaluate whether they were just … I mean, can you tell when a kinder is just making something up?

Elder offspring: Mmm-hmm. If they’re like, “Uh, science is … uh … science is, uh … science is the stuff that makes a plant gwow into a twee!”

Younger offspring: Ha ha ha!

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, OK. I don’t think you should make fun of the way they talk. So, you’re thinking that maybe if they sound uncertain, maybe they don’t know what they’re talking about?

Younger offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: Although some people can make up stories and sound completely sure of themselves? I mean, [Dr. Free-Ride's better half] does that all the time.

Younger offspring: He does! He said that he ate all my candy once.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, exactly!

Younger offspring: He’s mean!

Dr. Free-Ride: But, he also enjoys fooling you. Some people enjoy fooling people. Do you feel like you’re at the mercy of people telling you stuff, and you don’t have a good way to tell whether they really know that they’re talking about?

Younger offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are there any people who you sort of trust to know what they’re talking about when they talk about science?

Elder offspring: You.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why me?

Younger offspring: Because you’re older!

Elder offspring: Because you’re a scientist.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, I’m not working as a scientist.

Elder offspring: Yeah, but you are one.

Dr. Free-Ride: What does that mean that I am one, if I’m not working as one? Can you elaborate on that? Not to say that you’re wrong, but I’m just curious as to what you mean when you say that I’m a scientist. What makes someone a scientist? Is it just a matter of their training, or … ?

Elder offspring: It’s a matter of how much they know about science.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK. And you figure I know stuff about science because i spent so much time in school studying it?

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: You know, there are some sciences I know hardly anything about at all. There are some sciences where you guys know way more than I do.

Elder offspring: That’s true.

Dr. Free-Ride: So you trust me as a scientific authority. Who else do you trust to know something about science, or at least not to make stuff up?

Elder offspring: Me!

Dr. Free-Ride: Why you?

Younger offspring: Because [elder offspring] is older than me.

Elder offspring: Because I lie badly.

Dr. Free-Ride: Because you don’t lie persuasively? Could it also be because you actually have some good sources of information?

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: Like?

Elder offspring: My science book.

Dr. Free-Ride: What else? I mean, you read more than just your science book. What else do you read for good scientific information?

Elder offspring: Lots of things.

Dr. Free-Ride: There was that fact you were telling me earlier about blue whales being louder than a jackhammer.

Elder offspring: I found that in a puzzle book. They had a bunch of comparison questions — which of two things is higher, or lower, or louder. The answers in the back said a blue whale’s call is louder than a jackhammer.

Dr. Free-Ride: So, assuming that those answers were not just totally fabricated, you’re willing to believe, since they have a real answer section, that the answers are real.

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you have any strategies for double checking?

Elder offspring: Look it up.

Dr. Free-Ride: Where would you look it up?

Elder offspring: On the internet.

Dr. Free-Ride: On the internet? Do you have a sense of where on the internet you’d find reliable information?

Elder offspring: Wikipedia.

Dr. Free-Ride: You trust the Wikipedia editing? You think by and large they get errors out?

Elder offspring: Mmm-hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are there other sources online that you would trust?

Elder offspring: Google.

Dr. Free-Ride: Google! But Google’s just going to tell you which sites have the most incoming links. Maybe sometimes people link pages to point and laugh, to say, “Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Elder offspring: Hmmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: I know when I’m looking for information on, say, a jellyfish, I look at —

Elder offspring: Jellyfish-dot-com!

Dr. Free-Ride: I don’t, actually. I look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium site, because I know that they would only put up information they thought was reliable because they have a mission to educate, rather than just to entertain.

Elder offspring: I’s also trust the San Francisco Zoo for information about animals and habitats.

Dr. Free-Ride: But would you trust them for information about earthquakes?

Elder offspring: No!

Dr. Free-Ride: Where would you go for information about earthquakes?

Younger offspring: The Earthquake-a-pedia!

Dr. Free-Ride: If only there were such a thing.

Younger offspring: I hope there is! If there isn’t, I want to invent it!

Elder offspring: Or maybe there’s an earthquake museum that would have good information.

Dr. Free-Ride: You guys have never been to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, have you?

Younger offspring: No.

Elder offspring: No.

Dr. Free-Ride: It’s a museum that seems like it’s presenting factual information, but a lot of their exhibits are kind of, um …

Elder offspring: Fake?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, they’re kind of fake. So just having a museum get behind the information is not always enough.

Younger offspring: We have to ask you!

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh gosh, it’s not like I’d never be fooled. Sometimes I get fooled.

Elder offspring: April Fools!

Dr. Free-Ride: Actually, that’s the one day I’m likely not to get fooled, because I’m on my guard now. There was one pretty serious April Fool’s joke that got me back when I was in grad school, and since then I’ve been very very careful about what I believe the first day of April.

Elder offspring: What was it?

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh, it was that Richard Nixon was going to run for President again.

Elder offspring: Oh man!

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, exactly. Anyhoo, do you trust your teachers as sources of science information?

Elder offspring: Yes!

Younger offspring: Yes!

Elder offspring: Mine used to just teach science. She had a newt, and silkworms, and fire bellied toads, and a snake and everything!

Dr. Free-Ride: What are you guys learning about in science right now, though?

Elder offspring: Weather.

Dr. Free-Ride: Weather. And that has a lot to do with newts and silkworms and –

Elder offspring: No!

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. So there must be more to it than just having science teacher-y stuff around, huh?

Elder offspring: Well, science teachers in elementary school teach three basic things: earth and planetary science, life science, and physical science. My teacher taught all three of those to different grades.

Dr. Free-Ride: And someone taught her the material that she teaches?

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: And someone taught her something about how to teach it?

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: So you trust her.

Elder offspring: Yes!

Dr. Free-Ride: And she probably would admit if she didn’t know the answer to a question, and she would probably have a good idea who to ask or where to look it up, right?

Elder offspring: Right.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s why I trust her, too. Hey, do you think there’s a good way to protect yourself from being fooled if someone really wants to fool you?

Elder offspring: Yes, look it up.

Younger offspring: Don’t trust anyone.

* * * * *
A website that has scientific information kids and grown-ups can trust is the Year of Science site. Check it out.

Comments

  1. #1 $0.01
    November 6, 2009

    LOVELOVELOVE Younger Offspring’s final words. Glad you’re teaching them to be both respectful _and_ skeptical, both marks of kind and intelligent people. I’m also jealous that you have good science teachers in your school, but that’s another rant.

  2. #2 Dario Ringach
    November 6, 2009

    I have not been in some time… but I recall the Museum of Jurassic Technology is dark… very dark… and weird. But fake? What part is fake?

  3. #3 Uncle Fishy
    November 6, 2009

    We just went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology but we’d be happy to go again. I’ve still never been able to tell how those bats got through those sheets of metal.

  4. #4 Super Sally
    November 6, 2009

    Rather than “Earthquake-a-pedia” try the USGS site for current earthquakes, in CA and NV for example at:
    http://quake.usgs.gov/recenteqs/latestfault.htm

    I found out about it from my friend at work who trained in Geology, although she is working in Human Resources now. She often checks this site out to see what’s shakin’ (so to speak). So even if you don’t work as a scientist now, you can still keep up your interest and knowledge about your favorite topics.

  5. #5 Dave X
    November 6, 2009

    My wife and I joke about adding .com to whatever we’re looking for. It is almost as true as that “Rule 34″.

    Finding “http://earthquakepedia.com/“, a member of http://www.pedianetwork.com/ is also funny:

    “The PediaNetwork® is a division of Information Superbrand, Inc., (iSi) The CREDiBiliTY COMPANY™, that provides individuals and businesses the ultimate CREDiBiLiTY PLATFORM™ of information and educational resources supported by the most dynamic Web available digital platform on the Internet today. It provides merchants and consumers with “CREDIBILTY AT THE POINT OF NEED™”

  6. #6 Mike Olson
    November 6, 2009

    Scientists: asks questions, accepts answers based on testable observations.

    Others: Accept answers based on popular opinion. Accept answers based on traditional wisdowm. Accept answers because it makes them feel good or comfortable.

    Non-scientists are not necessarily wrong, but, the reason they believe their information is not necessarily based on reality.

  7. #7 Rob W
    November 6, 2009

    It’s a tough question.
    I’ve noticed how tricky it can get trying to explain to concerned parents/friends how they can know that the anti-vaccination folks are wrong (vs. “big pharma and doctors push vaccines to make money”, etc.).

    I find myself looking around for info on things like “what percentage of people working professionally with vaccines vaccinate their own children?” as a roundabout way to show that the conspiracy/money theory is bunk.

    Even understanding the basics of science isn’t enough to double-check anti-vaxer claims, because they argue that studies have been faked, altered, misinterpreted, etc.. Remember the fake “peer-reviewed journal” that Merck set up? Of course there *is* sometimes foul play, which casts a poor light on ALL other scientific research to anyone with no simple way to distinguish between good research and fakery.

    So these poor parents encounter generally journalists on one side (because the argument is carried out in the media… who talks to the vaccine experts directly?) who simply say “of course, there’s no scientific support for any autism-vaccine connection” (but you have to trust them on this unless you have the time and ability to dig into it yourself…). And on the other side, you have devastated parents who vouch for the damage done to their children, and another bunch of people who use similar-sounding rhetoric to claim that the link is obvious. Unless they tip their hand by being obvious loonies, the parents are adrift.

    When I have time I really want to dig around for unimpeachably trustworthy sources who explain the situation clearly, briefly, and with underlying expertise. Unfortunately, the time is lacking, and so I’m just another non-expert talking to these parents, and they don’t vaccinate their kids. :(

  8. #8 becca
    November 6, 2009

    Mike Olson- AHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA. Ok, seriously, you’re right, if we’re talking about some Ideal Scientist Construct. OTOH, if we’re talking about actual scientists….
    Well, I think xkcd has you beat:
    http://xkcd.com/242/

    Dr. Freeride- Nixon on April 1? *giggle*

  9. #9 Mike Olson
    November 6, 2009

    Okay, I was ready to be defensive but that was actually really funny. Quick story: I played high school sports. There was a guy on the team that was as dumb as a box of rocks. He was without a doubt the stupidest kid who was not actually mentally handicapped or learning disabled I’d ever met. He was also built like an ox. One day I’m in the trainers room during the off season. I’m putting this yellow-red spray on my hands to see what it will do. I’m then taking my hands and using them to mark things. I just want to understand how sticky it is, how much will come off, how viscous in general it is and what it will actually mark…anyway this body without a brain comes and and just starts dying laughing. He can’t believe anyone would be that stupid. It wasn’t just a matter of his trying to be cool or one up…he was really amused. BTW, if you are getting shocked, you really ought to figure out how, why, what makes it work, when it happens, and how you can fix it. Walking away you stay ignorant, someone else can get hurt and you gain no knowledge. Of course simply repeatedly getting shocked teaches nothing…Lincoln(Twain? maybe…)said that a cat that sits on a hot stove lid will never sit on a hot stove lid again. Unfortunately it will never sit on a cold one either. Love cats, but I’ll bet I can figure out which lids are cold without sitting on them to find out….

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